You go up, down, jump around

the_romantics_-_what_i_like_about_you On 22 March 1980, “What I Like About You” peaked at #49.

Before I talk about what I like about “What I Like About You“, I want to talk about one-hit wonders.  The reason why, is because many people remember The Romantics as a one hit wonder, and they think that one hit was “What I Like About You”.  But, I argue that this is wrong on two scores:  first, the band had more than one hit, and second, neither of its hits were “What I Like About You”.

But to have this discussion, we have to talk about categorization, because otherwise we’ll just be saying, “Yes it is because I feel it is,” “No it’s not because I feel it’s not.”  I’ll try to make the discussion entertaining.

The term “one hit wonder” has two important words:  “one” and “hit”.  “One is pretty clear — there should be exactly one hit.  But “hit” is fuzzier because there can be a lot of standards for what makes for a hit.  We could define it in terms of sales — maybe the song has to sell a certain number of copies or earn a certain amount of money — but a problem with this definition is that the newer a song is, the more people there are to buy it.  This poses no obstacles for people like The Beatles or Madonna, who are still selling copies of their back catalogue, but it is a problem for a band like The Romantics; how many people are still buying Romantics albums, or even singles at Amazon?  We then need to turn to the pop charts as arbiters that can control for the passage of time.  The charts compare coexisting songs and take into account radio popularity and sales; they make a pretty good yardstick.

But where should one draw the line to differentiate between a hit and a near-hit?  We talk about the top 10, the top 20, the top 40, and the top 100… any one of them could serve as a cutoff.  We have to pick one or the other, more or less arbitrarily.  Picking the top 100 probably lets in a lot of songs that, frankly, shouldn’t be considered hits.  Suzanne Fellini peaked at #87 with “Love on the Phone” and never had another chart appearance; as fun as the song is, I don’t think anyone would call that a hit.  On the other hand, top 10 or 20 is probably too restrictive:  I think everyone would agree that Pat Benatar’s “Heartbreaker” is a hit, even though it peaked at #23.  So we need a middling number, and the record industry gave it to us with top 40 radio.  40 is a nice average number — enough to fill a few hours without repeating, but enough to repeat the most popular songs multiple times a day, even with commercials.  You could argue for 30 or 50, but no matter what largeish two-digit number you choose, some worthy songs will fall short of it, and some questionable songs will make it over the bar, so why not use the number that the industry itself uses?

So top 40 is what I use to define a hit, and therefore, to be a one-hit-wonder, I say a performer needs to have exactly one song reach into the top 40.  For The Romantics, “What I Like About You” is not that song:  yeah, yeah, you know all the words because it was in Budweiser commercials in the late 80s, and as a result everyone was playing at their parties every summer that you were in college, but you probably don’t remember it from the radio in 1980.  No, the Romantics song that was undeniably a hit was 1983’s “Talking in Your Sleep” which got all the way to #3, and if that doesn’t already ring a bell, I’m sure you’ll remember it once you click the link.  Perhaps you don’t associate it with the band that made “What I Like About You” famous; that would be understandable because although “What I Like About You” is a frat-house power pop anthem, “Talking in Your Sleep” is angsty new wave and culturally feels dated.  Nonetheless, it was their big hit… but not their only hit.  In 1984, a follow-up single, “One in a Million“, went to #37.  It is much more akin to “What I Like About You” with a DIY 60s sound to it, but, at least in quality, it’s the inferior song even if it placed 12 slots higher.

So there you have it, The Romantics aren’t a one-hit wonder. There are a lot of other bands that similarly have come down in our collective memories as one hit wonders, even though they had two or more hits:  a-ha, Spandau Ballet, Simple Minds, Falco, Naked Eyes.  Technically, they’re not one hit wonders, but they feel like they are.  What makes us selectively remember their supposed one hit?  This gets at what I like about “What I Like About You”:  it has a certain style to it that makes it particularly memorable.  In this particular case, it serves as a party anthem that can stand shoulder to shoulder with other rocking songs, even if they’re veterans like Steppenwolf’s “Magic Carpet Ride” or a song with only two summers behind it, like Pitbull’s “Fireball“.  “What I Like About You” is straightforward and simple, but nonetheless brings something interesting to the party that makes it, perhaps intangibly, a classic.  On the other hand there are those hits that so capture the zeitgeist of a time that they completely overshadow a band’s other work.  The best example of this is a-ha’s “Take on Me“, which evokes 1985 so well that there’s no reason to remember that “The Sun Always Shines on TV” reached #20 later that year (even though I personally think “The Sun Always Shines on TV” is the better of the two).

So, in sum, if it isn’t one thing, it’s another.  A band may be a one hit wonder if they have a single song that somehow is timeless, moreso than anything else they performed… or a band may have a single song that so fundamentally captures the essence of its age that the band really didn’t need to perform anything else to be remembered.


My honey’s not a sweet thing

The_Knack_Baby_Talks_Dirty_coverOn 15 March 1980, “Baby Talks Dirty” by The Knack peaked at #38.

Before I talk about “Baby Talks Dirty” by The Knack, I want to talk about The Turtles.  Not because The Turtles and The Knack have all that much in common, but because something The Turtles did reminds me of what The Knack did with “Baby Talks Dirty”.

You almost certainly know The Turtles as the performers of “Happy Together“, a song that manages to be incredibly good, despite being ridiculously sappy and distractingly catchy.  Very few songs capture the innocent side of the psychedelic 60s like “Happy Together”, and, because it could appeal to literally anyone, it was a huge hit, reaching #1 in 1967.  Needless to say, The Turtles were under a lot of pressure to repeat the performance.  Surely, they had another #1 hit in them!  As it turns out, they didn’t, but their record company was sure they did.  “She’d Rather Be With Me” hit #3; “You Know What I Man” hit #12; “She’s My Girl got to #14.  Two other singles popped up in the middle reaches of the Hot 100.  Then Howard Kaylan, one of The Turtles’ singers, had a goofy idea:  write a song that’s clearly a parody of “Happy Together”, so ridiculously naïve that you couldn’t possibly believe it was a serious song… and use a lot of the same chords as “Happy Together”.  The result was a song about a girl who was Howard’s “pride and joy, et cetera”.  The record execs loved it, had them clean it up a bit, and thus a #6 hit — “Elenore” — was born.

I suspect something similar happened with “Baby Talks Dirty” vis a vis “My Sharona“, which is the song that ensures that any of us have ever heard of The Knack to begin with.  “My Sharona” spent six weeks on the top of the Hot 100 in 1979 and was the #1 single of the year.  It’s a rough and tumble, saucy song about a sexy girl who both taunts and gratifies the singer.  It taps that high-school lust-angst that most high school guys experience and in addition to being incredibly catchy, serves as something of a zeitgeist piece for the end of the 1970s.

Maybe “Baby Talks Dirty” wasn’t the result of pressure from record execs to score another “My Sharona”, but I think it’s pretty clear that whatever the motivation, “Baby Talks Dirty” is something of a parody of “My Sharona” that does tap into the same basic instincts that made “My Sharona” a hit, but was doomed to pale in comparison on the charts.  “Baby Talks Dirty” gets too explicitly raunchy to sit well with a top-40 audience.  Whereas Sharona was a tease, only implying that knock-down dirty sex was in the cards, “Baby Talks Dirty” tells you exactly what’s going on.  Like “My baby likes a real neat beating.”  Or “I got to tame her; make her my pet.”  These lyrics are too adult for and angsty high-school crush song and too juvenile to be taken seriously by the responsible S&M crowd.

Fortunately (perhaps?) the lyrics are mostly buried under music that sounds functionally like an inversion of “My Sharona”, not as good, but recognizably very similar and equally rockable.   Occasionally, those grunts in the chorus, or the occasional suggestive phrase bubbles up and makes you wonder what exactly you’re headbanging to.  So, go ahead and rock out.  Just don’t listen too hard and don’t take it too seriously.


Overview of 1 March 1980

The songs that peaked in the week of 1 March are (except for one) a really uninspiring bunch.  Brace yourself…

Apprehending all my criminal need

WaldenShouldaLovedYa.pngYou almost certainly don’t know Narada Michael Walden for “I Shoulda Loved Ya“, which got to #66 this week; you know him for his production work with Whitney Houston, Aretha Franklin, Jermaine Stewart, and a host of other R&B musicians, about which we’ll reserve judgment until they peak later in the 80s.  Listening to “I Shoulda Loved Ya”, it sounds like it belongs in the top twenty tracks of 1987, what with its heavy focus on saxophone, and handclaps urging you to do that mid-80s lurchy dance from side to side. The bass solo in the middle sort of pulls you back to the very late 70s, but all in all, this feels like it slipped through a time warp to warn us of what was to come:  “Do something now or EVERYTHING on the radio will sound like this!”  Actually, I’m being too harsh — this is at least perky and refreshing.  I wish the lyrics were a bit more coherent, because the theme of a guy who realizes he’s mistreated someone he’d been seeing is underutilized (maybe because most musicians don’t want to empathize with cads) and far more interesting than all these guys chasing women who aren’t interested in them, or, worse, so achingly in love with the person they’re with.

Just one lover is all you need to know

TurleyRichardYouMightNeed.pngOr there’s achy, preachy earnestness, like “You Might Need Somebody” by Turley Richards (#54), which ambles in like your junior-high art teacher walking up to you to scold you after some other authority figure broke up a fight.  Only Turley is here to berate you for… what, being anti-social?  The message here is to let someone into your heart, as if most people didn’t want that to begin with, and, really, the few people who don’t aren’t going to reconsider their self-isolation just because someone tells them that everyone needs someone around.  Gee thanks, tell us something we didn’t already know, and try to do it with less somnolent instrumentation.

Travelling down that lonesome road

molly-hatchet-flirtin-with-disaster-1979-front-cover-57732.jpgI’ve never knowingly listened to Molly Hatchet before, and I’d always wondered why Ray Stevens referenced them in”Erik the Awful”.  Looking at their mythologically Teutonic alum covers, I simply assumed that they were a good-spirited heavy metal or glam band.  Nope, they’re southern rock, which explains the Ray Stevens reference, if not the album covers. “Flirtin’ with Disaster” (#42) is pretty much what I expect when I think of southern rock…  mildly rebellious nasal vocals, fast-paced twangy guitars, with a solid solo, and… not much else.  This is what the US was listening to instead of Motorhead — who really knew how to rock — and it’s hard to say we were better for it.

Some things are not better left unsaid

NicoletteLetMeGo.pngI understand that there are lyrics to “Let Me Go, Love“, (#35) but when Nicolette Larson and Michael McDonald sing it, it’s hard to tell, because they sort of mumble the words over each other’s very idiosyncratic voice, so the result sounds like two people warbling alphabet soup out loud in a humid room.  Listen to how “look” sounds like “Luke” in “you’ve got that look in your eyes” and you’ll get an idea of what I mean; all the vowels in this song are a little bit nonstandard, and the result is decidedly alien.  Musically, it’s lazy dreamy, and a little bit jazzy, and not entirely uninteresting. I think this would have been better as a Herb Alpert-like instrumental without the vocals.

I’ll take control of your beautiful mind

CommodoresWonderland.pngWonderland” by The Commodores (#25) is one of those soul songs that can’t decide whether it wants to be sexy or creepy.  The singer’s approach — reassuring the woman he’s met that she’s lucky to meet him, that she shouldn’t be afraid, that he’ll take control of her, that any minute that passes may make the whole endeavor of seduction for naught — reeks of desperation, but that promise of being taken off to a magical wonderland of love sounds so enticing doesn’t it?  If it weren’t for the taxi driver, one might expect the song to turn out to be an episode in a serial murderer’s modus operandi.  Fortunately, it doesn’t appear to turn out that way, and the music is suitably trippy and smooth, so I’ll give it a wary pass on the creepiness.

I suppose I should give “September Morn” by Neil Diamond (#17) its own entry, but I won’t like it.

Let me smell the moon in your perfume

ForbertRomeo.pngTake a good look at Steve Forbert.  Does he look familiar?  If he does, you were probably watching MTv in 1983, not because his videos were showing, but because he had a cameo role in one of 1983’s most memorable videos:  he was Cyndi Lauper’s boyfriend in “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun”.  Before that, here in 1980, he just missed the top ten with his sweetly lilting “Romeo’s Tune” (#11).  It’s really hard to write a song that sounds and feels both intelligent and innocent without sounding fake or cynical; Steve Forbert has done that here and, looking at what was in the top ten when “Romeo Tune” peaked, he deserved to be in the top ten. He avoids simple clichés, but delivers lines that sound like fresh clichés, turns of phrase — those southern kisses and smelling the moon — that feel like he discovered them instead of created them.  The scene with the king and queen feels like a young adult in love discovering his recently outgrown youth, couching it in the imagery of his childhood fairy tales, but recognizing the need to be staid and boring when adulthood calls.  And the jaunty piano tune and the sweet backup singers emphasize the quiet excitement of not-so-young love.  In a way, this song is too good… how can a musician follow up on it?  And Forbert didn’t.  A dispute with his record company didn’t help, but generally it’s hard to shake the overshadowing effect of a single break-out hit; several other musicians I can think of (and will write about) have had similar flame-outs, and it’s a shame when the charts are so consistently filled with otherwise mediocre stuff. .

Bullet-proof vest, shatterproof glass

220px-Blondie_-_The_Hardest_PartOn 16 February, 1980, “The Hardest Part” by Blondie peaked at #84.

I wanted something different, and this — “The Hardest Part” by Blondie — this is different.  It has a power pop feel, but doesn’t have the power pop chords to really land it in that category; it isn’t ragged enough to be straight-up punk; it isn’t repetitive or layered enough to be new wave (though that’s what everyone said it is, mainly because it and songs like it were so different from everything else and the concept of new wave was no new and amorphous that anything uncategorizable in the late 70s got labelled new wave), it’s really its own thing.  And, as if to assert just how different it is, it’s unashamedly about something that practically never hits the top 40:  robbing an armored truck.   Yup, there it is, 25 tons of hardened steel, just waiting for Debbie Harry and the crew to force it to a stop and apply that nitro and acetylene to cut into the chassis and make off with enough money to take them to Brazil.  The hardest part?  It’s not even the armored guard, really, it’s that driver… How do you get him to stop?  Just turbo past and force him off, I suppose (the song isn’t clear).

I mean, this is an exciting story!  It could easily be the focal point of a movie, a movie I’d want to watch.  The music highlights the adrenaline rush of the scene, starting with a jaunty bubbly intro, and then settling into a relentless pulsing drive as our heroes grit their teeth and whiten their knuckles gripping the door handles and their guns, preparing to burst forth and execute their nearly-perfected plan.  Take me along, even if it means I only get to watch as a perplexed but impressed bystander!

The thing I like most about this song is how unapologetic Debbie Harry is in singing this.  There’s no appeal to try to justify why she’s turned to a life of crime.  She’s just a hardened criminal out to make a living, mentally prepped by Taxi Driver and A Clockwork Orange to take the world as she finds it and treat it as she wants.  It’s perhaps our first real taste of a Gen-X cynicism that will play an increasingly large role in the culture of the 80s.  As a Gen-Xer myself, I’m welcoming it with open arms and open eyes.

She’ll never let you down; she’ll never fool around

QuatroShe'sInLoveOn 26 January, 1980, “She’s in Love With You” by Suzi Quatro peaked at #41.

There isn’t much I can say about “She’s in Love With You“; it’s a pretty straightforward power pop song that Suzi Quatro delivers well… she’s a decent rocker and a decent singer, not so polished as to sound fake but polished enough that she’s listenable.  The lyrics take a sidestep from the traditional love song.  You see, this one is told from the point of view of the girl’s friend.  Lyrics that would sound pathetic and demeaning sung in the first person are an earnest, friendly warning when sung in the third person.  Beyond that, there’s not all that much here to surprise or amaze.  I’m pleasantly surprised, but not excited by it.  Perhaps the most surprising thing is that “She’s in Love With You” nearly cracked the top 40.  Whatever, it’s a nice song to hear once or twice, but it’s not particularly memorable.

London, you’re my home

Inmates.pngOn 26 January, 1980, “Dirty Water” by The Inmates peaked at #51.

This is how you don’t do a cover song.  Clearly The Inmates really liked the gritty depiction of Boston in “Dirty Water” and felt that the dank riverside, frustrated women, and hints at the career of a serial killer resonated for people living through London during the recession of the late 70s.  I think, though, that their appreciation went a bit too far because their performance is only superficially different from the original by the Standells.  Sure the tempo is different and the instrumentation is kind of different, but all in all, it’s a straight-up homage with not enough variation to justify the remake.  Even the snarling vocal delivery is the same.  Why listen to this when you can listen to The Standells?

Every time I call and you’re not there

LeifMemorizeOn 26 January, 1980, “Memorize Your Number” by Leif Garrett peaked at #60.

It’s rare that an actor-turned-musician has a memorable music career, and it’s even rarer when that actor is a child actor, so I fully expected Leif Garrett’s “Memorize Your Number” to be a total turkey.  I expected the sickly-sweet love ballads one usually gets from drug-fuelled heartthrobs whose greedy managers (or parents) decided they should press a record.

But hey, it turns out that drug-fuelled heartthrobs can occasionally put out a rockin’ power pop single.  This has got an angsty itchy rhythm guitar driving a similarly angst-riddled vocal about… well, I’m not sure exactly what’s going on, but it’s clearly a relationship on the rocks.  Is Leif trying not to fall in love?  He doesn’t want to memorize her number, and he’s already predicting not only living with this girl, but also breaking up with her a year later and telling her that she’s the one who messed it up.  So, yeah, he’s just met this girl and he’s already jaded about how the relationship is going to go, with all its jealousies and disappointments.  That’s pretty heavy for a guy who was about to turn 18.  (He was also about to get into a car crash that crippled his best friend, but hey, responsibility sucks.)  So, while this song is not exactly great shakes, it’s a bit more adventurous and edgy than one would expect from a guy whose music career was supposed to make 13-year-old girls the nation over swoon at the very hint of his honeyed voice.  This is a mature song and a pretty risky recording; Leif didn’t shy from risky behavior in his personal life (and sadly, still doesn’t as of his 2010 drug possession arrest) and it’s a good thing he didn’t in his venture into music.